Over the past few years, I have watched Art Bell and his family walk through the dark places of hell. I have seen the quiet courage of heartland America at work, and the deep injuries to the soul that come from being treated to irresponsible attention from the media.
Now Art is retiring from radio. For each of us who love him, who respect what he stands for, his voice is to become part of our past. But his vision must continue on, for it is a vision vital to the health of this country's mind and heart.
Art Bell has been accused of being a sensationalizer and an alarmist. However, he is something very different and very much more important. What he has done is to create a forum for rejected knowledge in a society that rejects far too much of it.
In the years after I wrote Communion, I was a beleaguered soul. Even as the media trumpeted the lie that I was making millions off the book, I was suffering the agony of losing the home where the ongoing miracle of my contact experience was unfolding. I learned firsthand what prejudice is all about, as I became more and more isolated, to the point that I was barely able to find publishers for my work.
Tens and hundreds of times, I endured hostile interviews, teasing interviews, stupid and insensitive interviews.
And then, suddenly, there was this one late-night talk show host who did not treat me like a dog. One person who at least let me talk. And then there were his listeners-I can well remember my early appearances on the show, what wonderful, sensitive, intelligent questions they asked.
At a time when suicide was very much on my mind, Art Bell and his listeners dropped me a lifeline. I clung to it and I have never let go and I will never let go.
I was hooked by Art's amazing ability as an interviewer. I would hang up the phone after five hours thinking that he had not just interviewed me, but led me to new insights about my work and my life simply by the intelligence of his questions. It wasn't that he agreed with me. In fact, to this day, I don't know what Art thinks of the story of Communion.
What he did that was so fantastic was to completely open his mind to my possibilities. In other words, his unique combination of neutrality and careful questioning gave me a forum.
I am not alone. He offered this same forum to dozens and dozens of other people who live and work at the edge-and beyond it. He would put anybody with a good story on, and let the listeners decide.
Art respected his audience. He didn't wish to censor their chance to make up their own minds. For this, he was pilloried in the media. Other talk shows vilified him. He was sneered at and laughed at and marginalized in every possible way. But he kept on doing what he believed in, and it became an amazing effort and an amazing journey. There is a reason that he ended up with such an enormous audience, a reason that can be summed up in one short word: freedom. Art Bell's show was about freedom of thought, the chance to hear the people whom everybody else suppressed, to hear them completely, as they really were, and to be allowed to draw your own conclusions about their value. I will tell you this about Art Bell, the thing that made me love him and that makes him different from almost the whole of the media: he respects not just the dignity of the ordinary man, he respects the mind of the ordinary man. He does not think that ordinary people need to be led by the hand. He thinks that they have a right to decide for themselves.
This means that he allows his guests to go to the edge and beyond it. And, as one of his guests, I experienced the amazing thrill of sometimes saying things that I would never have dared to say, and hearing response from the listeners more searching and intelligent than I had ever heard on any other program. When I first started trying out for Coast, I asked him what would happen if I reached a dead spot. He said, "there aren't any dead spots. All you have to do is go to the phones." And then he added, "I have the best audience in the world." I am going to miss Art's voice in the night and in my heart. The magic of turning on Coast to Coast in the wee hours will never be the same for me. At the same time, Art and his family must have peace and healing. God knows, they have earned it. So I wish this man who became a brother to me all the best in the world, and his amazing wife Ramona, and all their family. Go into the quiet. But if it ever gets too quiet-well, we'll still be out here in the dark talking, ready to make room for you back behind your old mike. In the meantime, we will honor the tradition of what you started. We will never let it die.
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